Scorers pushing MLS to the brink
The glow on Kenny Cooper's face lit up his corner of the MLS All-Stars locker room as he and his teammates decompressed after beating West Ham United 3-2 at BMO Field last Thursday.
"It really was great being out there with all these players," said Cooper. "It was important for us to play well and we had to do that to beat a good team like West Ham."
He hadn't scored a goal nor logged an assist, and in fact squandered an excellent chance by heading a Cuauhtémoc Blanco cross wide of the net. Juan Pablo Ángel replaced him at halftime, and it was Ángel, not Cooper, who slid the ball through for Dwayne De Rosario to win and then convert a penalty kick for the winning goal, and a few minutes later lose a legitimate goal when his blast into the roof of the net triggered a flag.
After a few words about the game, Cooper replied to the inevitable question about a possible transfer. "No, no news yet," he said. "I'll be playing Sunday against L.A., as far as know."
The Galaxy had made a move of its own a week earlier by signing Argentine defender Eduardo Domínguez, of whom president and general manager Alexi Lalas said, "He's what we can afford. Is he magically going to transform us into a great defensive team? No. But he's better than what we've got."
A few days later, Los Angeles waived Portuguese defender Abel Xavier and, on Sunday, Domínguez made his MLS debut against FC Dallas. Cooper scored twice; his first goal deflected off Domínguez past keeper Steve Cronin, and on the second goal, Cooper scraped the ball away from Domínguez, worked the ball inside, and traded passes with Dominic Oduro to shot low past Cronin into the bottom corner. Cooper added another assist and Oduro netted a goal of his own in a 4-0 rout that upped the Galaxy's goals-allowed to a league-high 37.
His two goals upped Cooper's tally this season to 11, which matches the personal high he set as a rookie in 2006 and again brings up the question: Has he done enough to earn a transfer abroad? To which the response must be: How much will it take for MLS to sell him or how much will it ante up to keep him?
Taylor Twellman scored 91 goals in his first six MLS seasons, but that wasn't enough for Kraft Sports Group and the league to sell him to Preston North End for $3 million last winter. Of course, Twellman and his representation erred by not negotiating a buyout figure when he signed a new MLS deal last year, which only intensified the Kraft organization's traditional resistance to selling players.
Cooper's career tally of 26 goals falls well short of Twellman's mark, but having already tasted the European game with Manchester United and at clubs on loan, he's more than keen to go back. FC Dallas general manager Michael Hitchcock said in a statement on Tuesday that the club has decided to keep Cooper -- for now. According to a source, a bid of $3 million from Cardiff City was rejected; Norway's Rosenborg bid more than that, and offered a salary of $1.2 million. That's not much less than the $1.5 million base salary earned by Ángel as New York's Designated Player.
Norwegian clubs pay high prices. Valerenga paid $750,000 for ex-D.C. United keeper Troy Perkins, and whether such prices are grounded anywhere near reality, or sanity, the hard fact is MLS must operate in the same dimension.
Only by offering Eddie Johnson money -- in the neighborhood of $850,000 -- could MLS possibly keep Cooper happy in the league for the long-term. He'd also have to be convinced that another year or two in MLS would refine his touch and finishing, increase his chances with the national team and perhaps help FC Dallas reach new ground: an MLS Cup.
But such a staggering salary would elevate him to DP status and far surpass the salaries of strikers like Twellman and Carlos Ruiz, and make it much harder for the league to keep prolific goal scorers without busting open its coffers. It could also set a dangerous salary benchmark for a talented third-year league veteran who has hit double figures but twice.
Yet the league can only blame itself for paying Johnson nearly as much as Landon Donovan, the all-time U.S. scoring leader and three-time MLS Cup winner. Whose fault is that?
So Cooper is staying, but FC Dallas officials are still faced with losing midfielder Juan Toja, the transfer target of Romanian club Steaua Bucharest. A source said an initial bid was $600,000; MLS paid $400,000 over the winter to acquire his rights after he played on loan last season. That's not a huge profit but, hey, not a bad return on an 18-month investment.
The cases of Cooper, Twellman, Ruiz and Ángel differ greatly, but scorers demand real money. To beef up Luciano Emilio's salary, D.C. United acquired a second DP slot from Colorado and worked out a complex deal to pay him more than the $285,000 base ($313,000 guaranteed) he was due to make this season after topping MLS with 20 goals last year. Break the bank with Cooper and get set to bargain with Emilio again if he goes well into double figures.
To avoid throwing its salary structure further out of whack, eventually selling Cooper may be the league's best option, especially if a rumored bid of $4 million from Cardiff City ratchets up the price even further.
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